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A Distant Flame
on March 30, 2006
A literary Civil War novel that alternates between Charlie Merrill's grim existence as a sharpshooter in the Army of Tennessee, his sickly but love-touched boyhood and his old age.
I have very mixed feelings about this novel and I note from the other blurbs and reviews it's gotten that my opinion is a somewhat contrarian one.
I certainly have no issue with the research, which appears to have been painstaking. I found, though, that my engagement with the story wavered many times as I read. I honestly can't decide if this is a significant literary work told in a poetic style or if it's essentially sentimental in its themes and given to purple prose in its execution. I had trouble with the narrative's total humorlessness, with the saintly profundity of every character, with the endless repetition of variants on "Slavery was wrong." Yeah, obviously slavery was wrong. Every modern reader, hopefully, realizes that. But I'm not really convinced that the nineteenth-century Georgian character Charlie Merrill would realistically feel so unequivocally about it, and, as ever, the statement would have worked better shown than told. The race relations shown in the novel are all actually idyllic.
And along those same lines, I'm tired of reading about Confederate characters who don't believe in what they're fighting for. I think sophisticated modern readers can deal with protagonists who are fighting for a variety of reasons, some of which we do not consider today to be good. Merrill's lack of commitment to any aspect of his cause (whether resisting invasion or states' rights or his comrades, except for his single companion Duncan, or slavery) actually makes his battlefield actions more, not less, morally questionable for me. It severely undermines the quality of moral spokesmanship that I think the novel is trying to give him.
I was more moved by the failed-romance aspect of the story than I was by the war aspect, which is unusual for me.
I think this would probably appeal to readers who enjoyed books like Cold Mountain more than to readers who enjoy, say, David Poyer's Civil War novels. As for its overall quality, I'm just not sure.